You get a free Amazon Echo Dot — a gift from a friend, or a company. Should you plug it in? Or will Alexa listen to your conversations?
This is the latest question we received at the So, Bob podcast. Actually, it was a bit more nuanced than that. A woman had received the gift, and wanted to use it, enjoying the notion of a smart home. But her boyfriend objected. She asked us what to do.
There’s a short answer and a long answer. The short answer is: I told the woman to respect her boyfriend’s wishes. He’s got the right to an Alexa-free life.
Now, will Alexa really listen in on their conversations? That answer isn’t so clear. “Probably not, but maybe,” is about right.
Anyone who uses these gadgets knows they operate via “wake words.” So, in theory, Alexa and similar gadgets only listen to what you say in the moments after a wake word is spoken. But everyone who has these gadgets also knows that they occasionaly butt in when they are unwanted — they mistake some other phrase for a wake word. Heck, even TV stories that mention Alexa or OK Google can wake gadgets, triggering them to interrupt with awkward phrases like, “I’m sorry, I didn’t get that.”
In other words. they do listen, at least sometimes, when you don’t want them to. That’s bad enough. But it gets worse.
Of course, Alexa isn’t just listening, she is recording. How else would Amazon better learn how to interpret the words consumers say? Those recordings live on Amazon servers, or Google servers, or whatever firm is connected to your smart gadget. That means the files can be obtained by law enforcement, or during any judicial proceeding, like a divorce.
It also means whatever company hosts those files might share them with other companies at some point. And of course there’s been plenty of unnerving stories about companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon allowing employees to listen to these recordings for quality control purposes. The files are supposed to be anonymized. Do you trust them? Do you trust them forever?
Alexa gets all the attention in discussions like this, but smart gadgets of all stripes create similar problems. Smart TVs have been caught listening to viewers, for example.
Don’t forget, smart homes mean homes filled with microphones. Open your house to these gadgets and you are consenting to something a bit like wiretapping all around your house.
Now, let your mind wander, and you will probably imagine that hackers might one day be able to access these microphones and spy on you. Well, that one day is today! A group of researchers at Germany’s Security Research Labs recently created horoscope apps that made their way past Google and Amazon screeners and onto the services, allowing the hackers to control the microphones .
Smart homes are kind of cool; voice recognition is going to be the key tool in making that happen. All this often feels inevitable. Perhaps it is. But people who feel spooked by this should be respected. Of all the gadgets you welcome into your home, those that record our voices are especially creepy and especially worrisome. So Allison in Drexel Hill, Pennslyvania: I’d leave Alexa in the box, at least as long as your boyfriend objects.
Meanwhile, if you are curious, you can see your Google audio recordings (and delete them) in the My Account section of Google (click here for instructions). You can do the same with Amazon / Alexa by following these instructions.